The Vauxhall CSLP was unceremoniously shut down by the NEC before the election on unsubstantiated grounds of contravening the party constitution. But the branch is not taking this treatment lying down. As well as running an energetic election campaign which saw its candidate, Ian Driver, gain 983 votes, the branch hosted a meeting on 13 April to discuss the disbanding of the branch, the mass suspension of its membership and other issues of democracy in the party. This meeting was attended by about 40 party members, and a broad discussion was held on how best to oppose anti-democratic trends emerging in the party.
Comrades who are serious about seeking to help the SLP develop towards Marxist politics must fight within the party to win the political arguments, not fake it at a local level.
Unfortunately the majority of those comrades present settled for a strategy which effectively leads them outside the party. The meeting passed a resolution explicitly endorsing the election campaign of Stan Keable in the Brent East constituency, attempting to link this campaign with Ian Drivers. This misses an important difference the campaign in Brent was run on a manifesto different from and counterposed to the Socialist Labour manifesto (in fact, the manifesto of another organisation), while the Vauxhall campaign was firmly based on national policy, as a branch resolution of 10 April states:
So the majority of the meeting responded to the appeal by the Vauxhall branch by planning a strategy that contradicts that adopted by the branch itself! It is a strategy that threatens to weaken the branchs fight to assert its rights and those of its members. What kind of support is this?
It is important to defend the membership rights of Stan Keable, who was voided without right of appeal, but we cannot endorse his behaviour. While ostensibly standing for Socialist Labour, Keable in fact put forward a political platform on which the party and its membership (outside Brent East) has had no say. Rather the programme was virtually identical to the manifesto published by the CPGB in its newspaper, the Weekly Worker.
Why be in a party if you are going to stand on an independent platform?
Some comrades at the meeting claimed that the Cardiff Central CSLP took a similar approach to the election campaign as Brent East, although using a different programme one promoted by a group of SLP comrades around the Socialist Labour Action journal. However, it has since transpired that although an alternative manifesto was produced, it was the SLPs national platform that was distributed to households in the constituency. The Cardiff Central candidate Terry Burns, who was the second highest polling SLP candidate with 2230 votes, very sensibly contradicts his erstwhile supporters: As a branch we drew up a statement for the election which we as a branch stood on, but we stood on the national platform as well otherwise why be in a party if you are going to stand on an independent platform? (interview with the Weekly Worker, May 8 1997)
Why indeed? For a branch to feel free to discuss, criticise and, if necessary, pass resolutions objecting to aspects of national policy is a sign of healthy party life, and it is to be hoped that the comrades will raise their views at the next party congress. But a Socialist Labour candidate should stand publicly on the programme of the party anything else falsely implies that they have already succeeded in winning the party over to their politics.
Comrades who are serious about seeking to help the SLP develop towards Marxist politics must fight within the party to win the political arguments, not fake it at a local level. The bureaucratic deformations that mar the SLPs internal and political life cannot be overcome by stunts, irrespective of their short-term success. In effect, anyone who stands on a party ticket on revolutionary policies that have already been voted down by the assembled membership at the May 1996 Congress is expressing their contempt for the SLP membership, and in practice splitting from the party and giving up any real fight.
Recently, Socialist Labour Action supporter Kirstie Paton has declared SLA to be a public faction of the SLP and one in political sympathy with Workers Power (interview in Workers Power, May 1997). Yes, Workers Power, the organisation that called for a Labour vote against SLP candidates such as Ian Driver, even supporting Tory defector Alan Howarth against Arthur Scargill in Newport East! How the comrade can claim that this is a political strategy to build Socialist Labour is beyond belief.
The one exception to their Labour-loyalism was Workers Powers wholehearted support to Terry Burns in Cardiff Central, on the not strictly accurate grounds that he was standing on a programme quite different to the official SLP manifesto. Comrade Burns himself has criticised this twisted approach to the election, saying:
Socialist Labour Action are clearly caught up in some rather contradictory political loyalties.
A Split Perspective
The majority of the 13 April meeting also made the decision to endorse the Campaign for a Democratic Socialist Labour Party (CDSLP). Initially this organisation was misleadingly presented as a new initiative in fact it has already published material, and to an audience beyond the membership of the SLP. A CDSLP leaflet was distributed at the meeting itself and the campaign has published on the internet on the Web pages of the Revolutionary Platform (www.revplat.demon.co.uk) which clearly expresses in words and deeds its perspective of public struggle against the SLP leadership as opposed to fighting for democracy within the party.
The meeting also called for the publication of a journal aimed at going public on the debates inside the SLP. This perspective of publication outside the party is already being implemented, not only by the Revolutionary Platform and the CDSLP but also supporters of Socialist Labour Action, who argue the point very explicitly in a public leaflet, accusing the SLP leadership of splitting the party and saying we have no alternative but to go public.
The question is posed of how to fight for changes in the partys policies and structures, while supporting the party and its membership in building a mass socialist party for British workers.
Other comrades correctly denounced the Socialist Labour Action arguments as a split perspective, but failed to see that their own arguments for publicising the divisions in the party as the way to fight for democracy are essentially no different, as shown by their common support for the decisions of the majority of the meeting.
This strategy is seriously mistaken. It shows a lack of faith in the membership of Socialist Labour. Although the initial promise and potential of the SLP is certainly threatened by attacks on branches and individuals, it is still possible to reverse this trend. There is widespread disquiet among party members all over the country about the way the party is organised and the difficulty in holding open political discussion. We, as party members, need to make sure these concerns are heard and dealt with. We need to discuss this thoroughly in the time leading up to the October congress and at the congress itself, which should hold a full discussion and vote on the party constitution and on party policy.
The process of programmatic clarification in the SLP, however, is still in its infancy. Some rudimentary programmatic agreement has been reached, but there is much yet to discuss.
The question is posed of how to fight for changes in the partys policies and structures, while supporting the party and its membership in building a mass socialist party for British workers. No element of the CDSLP has a strategy which can provide an answer to this question.
What is Open Debate?
Comrades who support an open journal argue that debates internal to Socialist Labour do in any case spread to the wider workers movement. This is doubtless true and much to be expected in a party of the size and heterogeneous nature of the SLP. After all, our founding conference with its wide-ranging debate was a public event.
The point is: who owns the discussion, who has the right to participate in it? Comrades of the CDSLP argue that these discussions are the property of the whole class. We say that an organisation, if it is to be an organisation at all, has the right, indeed the necessity, to its own internal life.
Reports on internal party meetings have regularly appeared in the press of other organisations, ever since the SLP was founded both those organisations who welcomed the formation of the party and those who are openly hostile. Those SLP members who are providing this information, despite their intentions, are actually violating the democratic rights of other SLP members political organisations do have the right to conduct meetings in private if they so wish.
If criticism of party policy or the actions of the leadership is taken outside the party, it is in danger of losing its context, that of overall support to the party as a whole. Such criticism, even if intended as support for the party by improving its functioning, can be seen as an attack on the party unless this context is made absolutely clear. Organisations opposed to our party, who supported Labour against us in the general election, for example, have eagerly leapt on such criticism. We cannot prevent this, of course, but we certainly should not encourage it.
We do not advocate a democratic-centralist regime for the SLP. Democratic centralism is the best method of functioning for a revolutionary party which is based on agreement around a clearly defined programme. It strengthens the argument for that programme if minor differences are fought out within the organisation, while members publicly defend the programme as a whole.
The process of programmatic clarification in the SLP, however, is still in its infancy. Some rudimentary programmatic agreement has been reached, but there is much yet to discuss. Within this framework comrades will clearly have their own tilt, and even differences, and certainly should not pretend otherwise. Discussion around these differences should be welcome as long as it is a serious attempt at improving the programme of the party, rather than posturing in the interest of revolutionary principle which purports to come from within but actually poses itself as an alternative to the party.
The CDSLP is not a project that has much future. Once the comrades concerned step outside the framework of working within a party structure, deep-seated divisions on questions of strategy and programme will become very much apparent. Essentially the CDSLP is made up of supporters of Socialist Labour Action and the Revolutionary Platform, with a few other individuals. Their differences of political approach, for instance on the all-important question of the Labour Party, will cause huge difficulties in any efforts to bring out a joint bulletin.
They will no doubt claim to represent the SLP left but the absurdity of making such a sweeping generalisation has already been shown by the fate of the Left Network, which fell apart acrimoniously after arguments over material published by some members of the group.
In fact, the SLP cannot be simply divided into a left and a right; it is more a case of a collection of different political trends, some more explicit than others, whose relative position on the spectrum varies from one question to another. Some currents within the party, whose methods and functioning are derived from the trade union bureaucracy, are formally to the left of other forces who are standing up for a democratic internal life in the party. For instance, the apparent majority of the NEC had a position of not calling for a vote to New Labour in the recent election, whereas some of the ostensibly revolutionary currents in the SLP, such as the supporters of Socialist Labour Action and Socialist Perspectives, had a position of voting for New Labour. In this situation, simplistic characterisations of currents as being left and right are not particularly helpful the NEC majority is definitely to the left of these currents on the question of the general election, while being to their right on the question of functioning and party democracy.
Real Debate to Build the Party
There is a tendency in all quarters of the party to be reticent about political background and political orientation unsurprising considering the treatment of comrades who are seen to be linked with political trends unfavoured by the leadership. This is an unhealthy atmosphere in order for the party programme to develop, political ideas need to be brought out into daylight, so they can be examined on their merits as part of the process of internal party discussions. That is why we publish this bulletin.
Those comrades who attended the 13 April meeting but do not endorse the CDSLP are committed to campaigning for democracy in the party within our branches and other party structures. We will campaign around the need for greater discussion amongst the entire party membership on the policies and constitution of the party a process which has barely begun. We will continue to argue for a democratic appeals procedure which has been crucially lacking in the first year of the partys life. We will work with all others who are committed to arguing these basic democratic points within the party. We do not see these as the only aspects of Socialist Labour which need changing, but we do believe that they can be the basis for all members of the party who want more democracy to work together to change things.
We will campaign around the need for greater discussion amongst the entire party membership on the policies and constitution of the party a process which has barely begun.
Supporters of the SLP Marxist Bulletin, while we argue for the political points contained in A Marxist Programme for the SLP , will be campaigning for democracy within the party to facilitate our ability, and that of others, to argue for political positions within the party. We look forward to fruitful debate and discussion which has the potential to lead us in the direction of building a mass working class party with a revolutionary strategy enabling the working class to take state power.